The Plame Affair Leads to Rome

“All roads lead to Rome,” and it seems that Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation into the Plame Affair, and more broadly the lies used to hoodwink the American people into supporting a criminal war on Iraq, will also trudge down the Appian Way lined this Halloween with the ghosts of crucified Iraqis.

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica has recently published an exposé alleging in essence that the Italian military intelligence agency SISMI (Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare) at the specific behest of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi provided bogus intelligence to the Bush neocons in order to curry favor with the U.S. and to abet the relentless drive for war between 9-11 and the March 2003 invasion. This follows an Italian parliamentary report released in part to the public in July concerning the forged Niger uranium documents at the heart of the Plame Affair. These, which purport to show a deal between Baghdad and Niger for the purchase of huge quantities of yellowcake, were it seems produced in the Italian capital.

The report names four men as the likely forgers of the documents (Michael Ledeen, Dewey Clarridge, Ahmed Chalabi and Francis Brookes) and suggests that the forgeries may have been planned at December 2001 gathering in Rome involving Ledeen and SISMI chief Nicolò Pollari. Also in attendance at that meeting: Larry Franklin, Harold Rhode, Manucher Ghorbanifar, Antonio Martino and others including a former senior official of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran. Here is a true rogues’ gallery.

Michael Ledeen: neocon columnist, National Review Online contributing editor, specialist on the thought of Machiavelli and on Italian fascism, former employee of the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council, was involved in the transfer of arms to Iran during the Iran-Contra affair. Active in the American Enterprise Institute, Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), and Center for Democracy in Iran (CDI). Advocates regime change by force in Iran and Syria.

Nicolò Pollari: Author of many publications on legal and economic matters, investigation techniques and intelligence. Tax law Professor at the Mediterranean University of Reggio Calabria. SISMI head since October 2001.

Dewey Clarridge: former CIA operative, famous in mid-1980s for his role in the Iran-Contra Affair. Head of CIA’s Latin America division 1981-84, directed the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors and helped organize the Contras. Indicted in November 1991 on seven counts of perjury and false statements, pardoned by first president Bush Christmas Eve 1992.

Ahmad Chalabi: convicted swindler, leader of U.S.-funded Iraqi National Congress, neocon ally, presently one of two deputy prime ministers in Iraqi government.

Francis Brookes: member of the “Rendon Group,” a “public relations” body formed by the Pentagon engaged to promote Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress.

Larry Franklin: colonel in USAF reserve, subordinate to Douglas Feith in Defense Department, Middle East specialist, under arrest for espionage for Israel.

Harold Rhode: Pentagon official, Middle East specialist, Ledeen protégé, American Enterprise Institute, heavy neocon.

Manucher Ghorbanifar: Iranian exile, arms dealer, one-time CIA operative distrusted by CIA since 1980s. Key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Antonio Martino: Founding member of Forza Italiano (Berlusconi’s political party), Professor of Economics, adjunct scholar with the Heritage Foundation, Italian Defense Minister.

Let’s add to the list Rocco Martino, a former intelligence officer and carabinieri, who has admitted (in interviews with the Sunday Times and Financial Times in August 2004) to involvement in the break-in into the Niger Embassy in Rome in January 2001 which procured the letterhead stationary used for the forgeries. He also acknowledges a role in circulating the fake documents, which he first passed to French intelligence, the French being sensitive to any possibility of yellowcake uranium from the French-owned mines in Niger. His motive was apparently mercenary. The French quickly realized the material was bogus, but SISMI, either in possession of the documents or aware of their content, elected to share them with Washington after 9-11.

On October 15, 2001, Berlusconi and newly appointed SISMI chief Pollari made an official visit to Washington. Berlusconi signaled his willingness to support the U.S. effort to implicate Saddam Hussein in 9/11, and in that connection Pollari provided CIA officials with a dossier indicating that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in Niger. This was followed by the Rome meeting organized by Ledeen, by discussions between Pollari and CIA director George Tenet in February 2002, and a report from Italy detailing a meeting between the Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican and the Nigerien head of state in 1999. (In the latter meeting, the Iraqi wanted to discuss trade, and given that Niger’s principal export is uranium, the report suggested that Baghdad was seeking to purchase yellowcake for a nuclear weapons program.)

By all accounts the CIA was concerned about and opposed to Ledeen’s dealings, which were unauthorized. In December 2001 the agency reported the matter to Condoleezza Rice’s chief deputy on the National Security Council, Stephen J. Hadley, who in February 2002 instructed Douglas Feith’s office to terminate Ledeen’s rogue operation. But Feith himself was of course up to his eyeballs in spreading disinformation to promote war on Iraq.

The report about documents proving Iraqi attempts to revive a nuclear program didn’t die, and in February there were discussions in Vice President Richard Cheney’s office (involving among others Libby and fellow neocon John Hannah) about Iraqi efforts to purchase uranium from Niger. Cheney either requested a CIA investigation, or was believed by the CIA to have done so, and therefore later that month the CIA sent Joseph Wilson on his fateful fact-finding mission to Niger.

Wilson’s report, accepted and positively evaluated by the CIA in March, had as we know no bearing on the decision to go to war or to prepare public opinion for war through a concerted disinformation campaign. Over the summer the Office of Special Plans under Feith, staffed by such Machiavellians as Abram Shulsky, William Luti, David Wurmer and Larry Franklin, systematically cherrypicked and stovepiped “intelligence” to an ignorant president who thinks he’s on a mission from God. Meanwhile the White House Iraq Group under Libby, Karl Rove, Andrew Card and Karen Hughs built the public case, apparently suggesting such talking points as, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

In July Ledeen informed the U.S. ambassador in Rome that he planned to return to the city to “continue his work” in September. On September 9, according to the recent account in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Ledeen arranged a secret meeting in Washington between Pollari and Hadley, in which they discussed the Niger uranium documents. On September 24, the British government, having received “intelligence” about the same cache of bogus documents, reported that “there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Iraq has no active civil nuclear power programme or nuclear power plants, and therefore has no legitimate reason to acquire uranium.” (This was in the same report that alleged Iraq had chemical and biological weapons “deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them,” and had “constructed a new engine test stand for the development of missiles capable of reaching the UK Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus and NATO members [Greece and Turkey], as well as all Iraq’s Gulf neighbours and Israel”)

The CIA, sidelined by the neocons and their Office of Special Plans, sought to strike back throughout September and October. They informed the Senate Intelligence Committee and the White House that they disagreed with the British report. CIA director Tenet effectively prevented Bush from including in a speech given on October 7 any reference to an Africa uranium purchase. But two days later, the documents the contents of which had only been summarized in communications between intelligence agencies to date were handed over by the above-mentioned Rocco Martino to Elisabetta Burba, a journalist with Panorama. This Italian magazine happens to be owned by Berlusconi, and had it published them would have further abetted the neocon-driven war cause. But Burba, question the documents’ authenticity, does not write about them but rather turns them over to the U.S. embassy.

Distributed among U.S. intelligence agencies, the documents are understood to be fraudulent, and since they are the basis for claims about Iraqi efforts to obtained African yellowcake, the CIA continues to oppose use of the Niger connection in building the case for war. Even so, Bush in his state of the union address in January 2003 asserts that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Over CIA protests, National Security Council staff member and Stephen Hadley subordinate Robert Joseph approved their inclusion, no doubt reasoning that if the report were attributed to British intelligence it would not be technically dishonest.

Turned out to be a bit embarrassing. When IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei asked to see the documentation for the president’s allegation, he was allowed to do so, concluding almost immediately that they were “crude forgeries” and expressing amazement that the U.S. government could have taken them seriously. Colin Powell on NBC’s “Meet the Press” had to deny “any falsification activities” by U.S. government and state, “It was the information that we had. We provided it. If that information is inaccurate, fine.” But too late to stop the train now.

That was just days before the beginning of the Iraq invasion. Afterwards, when it became clear for the world to see that there were no bottles of anthrax much less a developed nuclear weapons program in Iraq, Citizen Wilson came forward, had his say, and suffered in some small degree the viciousness that characterizes the neocon project. Since then Chalabi’s been discredited as a liar and spy, Franklin arrested for espionage on behalf of Israel, Libby indicted for charges related to Plame’s outing, Rove under suspicion. Feith has left government. But it’s too soon to speak of the “twilight of the neocons” while Hannah, Hadley, Luti, Wurmser, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, John Negroponte and other neocons remain in power, with Ledeen and Shulsky still skulking about.

The Italian parliamentary report on the Niger documents, along with the Repubblica investigative reporting, might just prove to be a low-smoldering Roman candle that will soon light up the sky and shower down shock and awe on these ghouls. Berlusconi’s Halloween trip to the White House occurs as the Italian president facing political difficulties seeks to back away from the war he so enthusiastically facilitated. Former Bush advisor and “Axis of Evil” speechwriter, neocon David Frum, says Bush feels he can “no longer trust” Berlusconi following his statement to Italian television, “It would have been better to avoid military action [in Iraq]. I tried several times to convince the American president to not go to war.”
That’s the statement of a man who, having seen the war going badly, is not only withdrawing some of his troops from Iraq but dissociating himself from the whole buildup to the war. He knows that Fitzgerald has received a copy of the Italian parliamentary report and will quite likely ask to question Italian nationals as well as Ledeen about how the Niger uranium myth Libby was so eager to promulgate and then protect was spun in the Eternal City in the first place. Italy should figure centrally in his investigation.

Huddling in their creepy conclave this Halloween, Bush and Berlusconi must’ve discerned the presence of ghosts of scandals past (Watergate, Iran-Contra) based on “noble lies” and noble cover-ups hovering below the White House ceiling. From under the floorboards the hissing of the vengeful spirits of tens of thousands of Iraqi dead, and over 2000 Americans and 27 Italians sacrificed. Far in the distance the rattling of chains and the bit of the executioner axe scraping on the sharpening stone. The screams echoing from the torture chambers. How scared they must be as Fitzgerald’s special-prosecuting craft threatens to uncover a trans-Atlantic masque so macabre that once exposed will shake off the spell of even those most enthralled.

The benumbed, smitten with the charm of the flight-suited conqueror. Those paralyzed by fear, by the color-coded terror advisories. Those hypnotized by the eerie omnipresence of red-white-and blue on their TV screens. What if they see the trolls exposed, naked in the daylight, cowering before charges of crimes against peace? What if those red-white-and-blue scales fall from their eyes, showing a world filled with complex patterns and colors? What if hearing returns to the bewitched masses and they hear the munchkins’ song rising over Oz: “Ding dong, the witch is dead, the witch o witch, the wicked witch. Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead”? Just thinking cheerfully here, whistling in the dark, amidst the spooks, this Halloween.

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Libby’s hero Niccolo Machiavelli praised his contemporary, Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) as a master of deception. In The Prince he writes:

a prudent Prince neither can nor ought to keep his word when to keep it is hurtful to him and the causes which led him to pledge it are removed. . . It is necessary, indeed. . .to be skilful in simulating and dissembling. But men are so simple, and governed so absolutely by their present needs, that he who wishes to deceive will never fail in finding willing dupes. One recent example I will not omit. Pope Alexander VI had no care or thought but how to deceive, and always found material to work on. No man ever had a more effective manner of asseverating, or made promises with more solemn protestations, or observed them less. And yet, because he understood this side of human nature, his frauds always succeeded.

Libby’s Pope Alexander is George W. Bush, whom when asked about his historical legacy once scoffed, “History? We’ll all be dead!” Pope Alexander is gone indeed, reviled even by the Catholic Church which at one time revered him as the Vicar of Christ. “Most offensive and scandalous” wrote eighteenth century Church historian Joseph de Maistre. Will the History he so dismisses deal the Christian right’s hero, once or even before he’s dead, a similar verdict? Ding dong ding dong.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at:



Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: